Sundance Institute Staffers Resign in Response to ‘Jihad Rehab’ Backlash — Exclusive

The two Sundance Institute staffers who resigned expressed concerns about the film ahead of this year’s festival.

“Jihad Rehab”

Two senior staffers at the Sundance Institute have resigned from their positions in response to the decision to program the documentary “Jihad Rehab,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Brenda Coughlin, director of Impact and Strategy, and Karim Ahmad, director of the Outreach & Inclusion Program, tendered their resignations last month. Both will continue to work at the Institute through February.

As IndieWire previously reported, in January a group of Muslim American filmmakers submitted a letter to Sundance voicing their concerns about the movie, which was part of the U.S. Documentary Competition. Coughlin and Ahmad were among the Sundance staffers copied on the email, along with festival director Tabitha Jackson and director of programming Kim Yutani, but neither Coughlin nor Ahmad participated in a follow-up meeting with the letter’s authors over Zoom.

In addition to taking issue with the movie’s title, which misappropriates the term “jihad” as terrorism despite its Islam’s more expansive definition, Coughlin and Ahmad were among those who voiced concerns for the safety of the film’s subjects.

Director Meg Smaker, a former firefighter who reportedly spent five years working on the project, interviews a range of men at a facility in Saudi Arabia after they have been released from years of detention in Guantanamo Bay. Their interviews are paired with “rap sheets” featuring their alleged crimes, although none were officially charged with committing acts of terrorism and in some cases deny the charges on camera.

There were also security concerns with respect to the project’s Saudi crew and the leader of the rehabilitation institute, who is asked on camera about the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his record of human-rights abuse.

The virtual format of this year’s festival heightened safety concerns for the Saudi Arabian participants. Despite geoblocking to prevent the program’s availability outside of the U.S., many involved in planning for the festival knew other countries could gain access using a VPN or other methods.

There were similar safety concerns surrounding the documentary “Navalny.” It profiles Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who’s currently incarcerated in his country — although in that case, the movie has the backing of CNN Films and its formidable legal team. “Jihad Rehab” is an independent production with multiple sources of financing that is seeking distribution through UTA.

After festival representatives provided feedback to the “Jihad Rehab” filmmakers, Smaker and her team allegedly tweaked the cut to address those notes in the weeks leading up to the festival. Post-screening, those changes did not stem the tide of criticism on social media. Numerous individuals credited as advisors to the film in its credits also sought to publicly distance themselves from the project.

A Sundance representative confirmed the resignations this week and offered the following statement:

We would like to extend our gratitude to both Brenda Coughlin and Karim Ahmad for their contributions to Sundance Institute. As an organization, the Sundance Institute has always been about supporting artists. We’re grateful for everything the Impact, Engagement, and Advocacy and Outreach & Inclusion teams have done under Brenda and Karim’s leadership over the years to drive the Institute towards being more inclusive, accessible, and supportive of the diverse Sundance community. We deeply value the work of our teams in these areas from advancing our efforts to support storytelling by and for people who have been historically marginalized to continuing our field-building initiatives. We have so much more to do and we will continuously strive to be better. For now, we thank Brenda and Karim for sharing their guidance, expertise, and leadership during their time at Sundance and know they will continue to do meaningful work for artists and in the field in the future.

Coughlin and Ahmad declined to comment on their resignations, but sources with a close understanding of the situation said the pair reached their decisions individually and did not coordinate on their departure plans. There is also a general sense that Ahmad, who is Muslim, felt that the festival’s decision to program “Jihad Rehab” was incompatible with his allegiances to his family and community as well as the work he did within the organization.

After the publication of IndieWire’s story on the initial fallout surrounding “Jihad Rehab,” Ahmad appeared to allude to the situation on Twitter. “Careless cultural production is inexcusable,” he wrote. “As are institutions that persist in performative equity measures while actively resisting efforts that will actually redistribute power in necessary ways.”

Last summer, Ahmad authored a report entitled “Restoring the Future: Building a More Abundant Media Arts System Through Restorative Values Practice,” which outlined exhaustive plans “to combat systemic harm that has been wrought on artists from historically marginalized communities.” The report was developed alongside a loose coalition of organizations including Film Independent, The Black List, and Sundance itself.

Sundance is not alone in facing questions of culpability in relation to this particular project. It was supported by a wide array of producers and financing entities and received interest from other festivals well ahead of its Sundance premiere. The film was also well reviewed by trades at the festival, most of which did not address questions of representation and accountability surrounding its production.

However, the resignations touch on a continuing identity crisis for Sundance, which IndieWire explored last week — the bifurcated nature of the brand, which encompasses both the Institute and the festival. Decisions made by the programming team are safeguarded from the influence of the Institute, which runs labs and provides filmmaking grants. While that church-and-state approach allows programmers to respond more freely to film submissions, it’s also a source of tension within the organization.

The fallout of “Jihad Rehab” comes amid tremendous change for the Institute. In 2020, the Institute laid off 13 percent of its staff in response to the pandemic, and veteran executive Keri Putnam left her position as CEO one year later. Former TIFF co-head Joana Vicente took that role in November. In another recent departure, Sundance producing director Gina Duncan is leaving the organization to become the new president of BAM, where she previously ran the film program before departing for the festival in 2020.

Couglin and Ahmad declined to comment for this story.